Michigan authors’ event includes a guide to the quirky Upper Peninsula

By Susan R. Pollack
Special to The Detroit News
Christmas Tree Ship Plaque

Most Michigan residents likely have heard about Tahquamenon Falls and pasties, the hearty meat pies favored by Upper Peninsula miners.

But beyond the obvious, there’s a vast land just across the Mackinac Bridge that merits a deeper dive.

Kath Usitalo, whose UP roots date to the early 1900’s when her Finnish great grandfather worked in a copper mine, offers an inside look in her new book, "Secret Upper Peninsula:  A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure." (Reedy Press, September, 2019; $20.95) 

A former Metro Detroiter who relocated to the UP five years ago, she’s among 44 Michigan authors participating in a free, pre-holiday Books & Authors event Sunday at Leon & Lulu in Clawson. They’ll sign books and do readings from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ten percent of sales will benefit Oakland Literacy Council.

Usitalo wrote two previous Reedy Press books: “100 Things to Do in the Upper Peninsula Before You Die” and “100 Things to Do on Mackinac Island Before You Die.”

Here, she shares some vignettes from her newest book:

You found a NASA rocket site in the UP?

Yes, in the 1960s, at the remote tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, NASA developed a site for testing small rockets that were to be placed on buoys and used to gather weather information. It was called the Keweenaw Rocket Range and was used from 1964 to 1971. Much of the testing was done in the off-season because of the freighters passing not too far away. All that remains is the remnant of the launch pad. In 2000, NASA installed a marker commemorating the site.


What’s the story behind Lakenenland Sculpture Park?

Tom Lakenen is a pipefitter who turned his energy to creating sculptures out of scrap metal. He bought 37 acres between Marquette and Munising and created a free park, open daily and populated with over 100 whimsical sculptures. Scattered along the wooded trails are monsters, aliens, dinosaurs --- as Lakenen says, “All the things I saw while drinking.” It’s popular with snowmobilers and there are concerts and summer events, too, including a fishing day for kids, all free. He doesn’t want anyone to stay away because they can’t afford to pay admission.

Tell us the sad tale of the Christmas Tree Ship.

Right off US 2 in Thompson, five miles west of Manistique, there’s a really nice little roadside park on Lake Michigan. It was a busy harbor when the three-masted ship, Rouse Simmons, set sail for Chicago on Nov. 22, 1912, loaded with Christmas trees. Every year, a crowd would wait by the Chicago River anticipating the arrival of “Capt. Santa” and the Christmas Tree Ship. Unfortunately, the ship went down in a storm that year, with all hands. But just a year later, the captain’s wife and three daughters decided to carry on the Schuenemann family tradition; they eventually switched to trains to transport the trees but continued through the mid-1930s. There’s still an organization, Chicago’s Christmas Ship, that transports trees from Michigan to Chicago.

Kitch-iti-Kipi, aka Big Spring.

What’s that spring with the unusual name?

You mean Kitch-iti-Kipi, the Big Spring, or, as Native Americans called it, the “Mirror of Heaven.” This natural wonder was used in the early 1900s as a trash dump by a lumber camp. John Bellaire, a merchant in nearby Manistique, convinced the Palms Book Land Company to sell the spring and 90 acres to the state for $10. That explains the Palms Book State Park name. Michigan’s biggest spring, about 200 feet across and 40 feet deep, it’s emerald green in color and crystal clear, reflecting the trees and clouds. There’s a fissure in the limestone that forces the water up at about 10,000 gallons per minute. At a constant 45 degrees, it never freezes. Even kids can steer the self-propelled wooden raft that’s on a cable. Out in mid-spring, everyone watches fat trout through the viewing well and spots the occasional wayward cell phone.

Pickle Barrel

Is there really a pickle barrel cottage?

Long before the current tiny house craze, cartoonist William Donahey and his wife, Mary Dickerson Donahey, a children’s book author, vacationed in a bitty bungalow near Grand Marais. The Pickle Barrel House was inspired by The Teenie Weenies, Donahey’s popular comic strip about the predicaments 2-inch tall characters faced living in the big world, such as getting rescued after falling into a bowl of cereal. It debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1914 and ran on and off until 1970. The Teenie Weenies appeared in advertising for pickles, too, and the company they promoted created a replica pickle barrel cottage as a getaway for the cartoonist. The couple eventually donated it to the town, where it served as a visitor center, and is now a Teenie Weenie museum.

We don’t want to spill all your secrets, but is there anything you’d like to add?

This is a book that I think you can enjoy if you’re just reading at home or if you take it on the road. The UP is filled with fun, quirky stories and interesting people. Come up and see for yourself!

Susan R. Pollack is a travel writer based in Metro Detroit.

Books & Authors event

11 a.m. to 5 p.m Sunday

 Leon & Lulu, Clawson.